NEW YORK – From November 4, 2014–February 1, 2015 one large room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art will glow with paintings displaying the unique colors and spirit of one of Hellenism great minds and souls: Dominicos Theotokopoulos – El Greco.
That is how the painter who lived most of his life in Toledo Spain always signed his name. He often added the word Cres – The Cretan, never forgetting the island of his birth, and its capital, known at various times as Heraklion, Megalo Kastro and Candia during Venetian rule from 1212-1669.
Judging from the journalists who attended the press preview on November 3rd, many New Yorkers fascinated by paintings known for their evocative elongated figures fantastic colors will stream to the exhibition – but Greek-Americans will profit from learning about a grifted Hellene and life under the all-but-forgotten but important period of Venetian rule.
The exhibition, titled El Greco in New York, is made possible by Northern Trust, spans El Greco’s entire career, from his arrival in Venice in 1567, through his move to Rome in 1570 and his long residence in Toledo, Spain, from 1577 until his death in 1614.
Keith Christiansen, Director of the Department of European Paintings, and Walter Liedtke, Curator in the Department of European Paintings, are its organizers and spoke to the press about the artist.
El Greco did not plan to move permanently to Toledo, where he created all his mature works. He went to Spain hoping to make a place for himself and the court of Philip II, and he did secure two important commissions – but the king did not like the paintings.
With the assistance of friends, El Greco secured many commissions for religious art, including prominent altarpieces – Toledo was then the spiritual capital of Spain – and portraits of Catholic officials.
The painting of Fernando Niño de Guevara, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, in his dazzlingly-colored vestments, dominates the exhibit along with the unfinished but still striking “The Vision of Saint John.”
Among the El Greco favorites is “A View of Toledo,” with it luscious green landscape. Liedke informed that it was entirely a child of the painter’s imagination – it is not a verdant region.
El Greco nevertheless grew to love the place, where he had a family – his son, Jorge Manuel, became a painter and was his assistant, but he probably never married his companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas.
EI Greco, who is admired for his colors, said “I hold the imitation of color to be the greatest difficulty of art.”
Modern scholars consider him so individual they do not place him in any conventional school. The Italian Mannerists, who were reacting to Late Renaissance naturalism, can most rightly claim him.
JUST CALL HIM A GENIUS
Although one can make sense of his work by saying he married Byzantine and Western painting, it suffices to call El Greco a Genius. He was also esteemed as an architect and sculptor.
There is debate about his religious sentiments, with speculation ranging from agnostic – his extensive (for its time) library earns him the label intellectual – to devout Catholic (by birth or chrismation) – to closet Orthodox Christian.
These are not academic matters given the crowd he ran with. As Grand Inquisitor de Guevara reportedly burned 240 heretics.
Although he described himself as “devout Catholic” in his will, scholars believe El Greco’s family and ancestors were Greek Orthodox, noting that one of his uncles was an Orthodox priest, and that his name is not mentioned in the Catholic baptismal records. Pandeli Prevelakis doubts that El Greco was ever a practicing Roman Catholic.
El Greco first mastered Byzantine iconography and Liedke told TNH that it is worth exploring whether El Greco’s fascination with light was influenced by the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church and its emphasis on visions of God’s Uncreated Light, in addition to what he learned from Venetian masters like Tintoretto.
Art students will ponder the artistic allegiances of the man who anticipated Expressionism, Impressionism, and Cubism by almost 400 years. El Greco mastered Byzantine iconography and learned the western style on Crete,
Liedke emphasized that the Met began to acquire El Grecos just as Europe’s artists rediscovered him early in the 20th Century. For the record, he doubts a painting in the collection is El Greco’s self portrait.
The exhibition brings together all of the artist’s paintings in The Met’s collection, which it calls the finest outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and displays them with loans from the Hispanic Society of America.
Marcus Burke, the Society’s Senior Curator, also addressed the press and noted that they, like the Met, will present lectures about El Greco throughout the exhibition.
During the same period, New York’s Frick Collection, whose works by this artist cannot
be lent, will exhibit its three El Greco pictures together for the first time.